HPU Summer Study Abroad 2014
Part II – UgandaThe second half of the study is finished, and the students have all gone home. Our second destination contrasted the conflict in northern Uganda between the LRA and the UPDF (formerly the NRA) and the conflict we experienced in Rwanda. But before we could do that, we had one stop to make on our long bus ride between Kigali and Gulu.
We stopped in Mbarara, the quickly becoming the second largest city in Uganda and also the home of President Museveni. Just outside the city, perhaps a few hours, is the refugee settlement of Nakivale, and every year, hundreds and sometimes thousands of Rwandan refugees flee from the country to take up refuge here, in this rudimentary and extremely dusty camp. The existence of the camp was not surprising, but the recent refugee status of many of its residents shocked us. We knew that supporters of the former Hutu Extremist government had taken refuge in Congo, Uganda, and elsewhere, and while the government has tried to bring them back to face justice, this process is met with mixed success. Where the post 1994 refugees came from, I had no idea. Until they told their side of the story.
It was shocking to hear their accusations of Genocide and the harrowing account of a widower whose wife and children were shot and their bodies buried and covered with a playground. Others told of how they first fled to Tanzania, and when they were brought back at the point of a gun, they fled again when the government raided their village. One woman told of how, when her husband spoke out against the government, he was imprisoned on false charges, escaped, and fled to the Congo. Rwandan officials came to her house to question her on his whereabouts, physically assaulted her, and left her beaten and forced to flee with her children.
Some of those we talked to were undoubtedly supporters of the Genocidal regime in Uganda. One implied he had assisted with the work without saying it outright. Others, however, were very definitely not. This made me question the accuracy of their stories, but I realized, even if their stories were half true, I couldn't trust the stories I was told by the Rwandan government either. It was a puzzling situation.
After the settlement, we continued our studies in the north, in Gulu across the Nile. We focused not only on conflict but on development. Gulu during the war was the most heavily populated region in the world for NGOs, and while that population has since moved on, the effects of their presence still influences daily life in Gulu. We met the King of the Acholi people, the largest ethnic group in the north, and talked on how ethnic identity helped to shape conflict.
We talked to those who were in Gulu as it was turned into an official displacement camp when the government rounded up all Acholi people and placed them in camps for safety against the violent LRA. These camps, however, served as a recruiting ground for the LRA and hundreds of children were abducted from these camps by the LRA to serve in their militia. Both sides used children in the conflict.
In Uganda, unlike Rwanda, no clear story emerged. We learned the war started in 1987 when Acholi began to be persecuted for their support of the former president, President Obote, himself deposed twice by violent coup. Uganda is divided along ethnic lines, and when a new President comes into power his home region prospers as the expense of others. Museveni is from south of the Nile, and as we traveled from the south to the north, the differences were stark.
The war was fought in the bush, initially with vast popular support. But as the war dragged on and the casualties mounted, support fell away. The first leader of the resistance failed at high cost, and her successor, Joseph Kony, vowed to do better. He let nothing stand in his way, and perpetrated horribly violent acts to stop informants, spies, and opposition. Soon the people of the north were being oppressed by both sides, and called for an end to the conflict. Neither had the power to end it, however, at it took the start of the War on Terror and US involvement on Museveni's side to end the conflict. The LRA was pushed out in 2007 and people began moving back home in 2008. As the records were tallied, it soon became clear that almost as many people had died in the camps as had died in the war, and civilian casualties perpetrated by both sides were astronomical. The King himself was abducted as a child, and it was only luck that saved him.
The LRA still operates to this day in the Congo, South Sudan, and the CAR. The government operates as well on a regional level, and while they have diverted some small relief aid to the region, aid is largely left to the management of local NGOs who have almost become the government in a sense. They are responsible for the welfare of the people, and without their help many would die or suffer extreme circumstances. The problem comes when these NGOs, as they are wont to do, pull out. This is the situation Gulu is facing today, and it is difficult seeing the situations which people are reduced to. Many would fall on their knees in the streets, begging for anything we could give. They have nowhere left to turn.
This is but one of many facets of post-war Acholiland. Another is the resurgence of traditional peace-keeping methods which try to bring ex-militia back to their families. This process has mixed success, and serves to strengthen the ethnic ties which bind people together, but also pull people apart.
We finished out study in Busiya, on the border with Kenya. We reflected on what we had learned over the past five weeks, and took a much needed break. Peace and Conflict, it seems, are never as cut and dry as they might at first appear. Everything plays a role in war, including development aid. Economic scarcity and ethnic division may lead to conflict, but ethnic ties and severe economic stress can solve it too. I will be processing what I've learned for some time to come, and while I expect no clear answers, at the very least I will know I must become aware before becoming involved. I would argue that there are no truly neutral positions in conflict, and blind support of one side or another can have disastrous consequences.